ANALYSIS: Client Profile - WWF wrestles with its popularity and image. The World Wrestling Federation has grown from humble beginnings to become a wildly popular, dollars 250 million media empire. But how can a corporate PR team appeal to stakeholders whi

The World Wrestling Federation’s ’Judgment Day’ pay-per-view event at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena on Sunday, May 23, 1999 started like any other. The pyrotechnics went off; the grapplers pulled on their tights and masks. And then the unthinkable happened.

The World Wrestling Federation’s ’Judgment Day’ pay-per-view event at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena on Sunday, May 23, 1999 started like any other. The pyrotechnics went off; the grapplers pulled on their tights and masks. And then the unthinkable happened.

The World Wrestling Federation’s ’Judgment Day’ pay-per-view event

at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena on Sunday, May 23, 1999 started like any

other. The pyrotechnics went off; the grapplers pulled on their tights

and masks. And then the unthinkable happened.

Owen Hart, wrestling as the ’Blue Blazer,’ sat in the arena’s rafters,

waiting to make a grand entrance. But the contraption designed to lower

him into the ring malfunctioned, and Hart plunged six stories in a

matter of seconds. He died in the ring.

In a move still debated a year after the tragedy, the WWF allowed the

show to continue. ’After (Owen) lost his fight for life, they just

scooped him up and ordered the next match out,’ Hart’s wife Martha wrote

in The Calgary Sun last week. But WWF SVP of marketing and public

relations Jim Byrne counters that. ’The highest tribute that everybody

could give was to put one foot in front of the other and do what they do

for a living, which is perform,’ he says.

Such are the pitfalls of doing public relations for a hyper-high-profile

entertainment property like the WWF: no matter what you do, you’re going

to get second-guessed.

While Byrne says, ’There is no doubt in my mind that we did the best job

we could possibly do,’ others view the WWF’s handling of the incident

much more cynically. ’They looked for scapegoats, then they hired Jesse

Ventura to appear at the SummerSlam pay-per-view, and everybody forgot

about Owen,’ says Dave Meltzer, a long-time scribe generally considered

the Walter Cronkite of wrestling writers. When asked whether he thinks

this was a conscious strategy, Meltzer responds, ’Everyone in wrestling

saw it that way.’

PR keeps WWF afloat

The Owen Hart tragedy could well have sunk the WWF, which at the time

was fending off criticism from high-minded groups (such as Morality in

Media) while preparing for an August 1999 IPO. But it didn’t sink,

thanks in large part to an extraordinary PR response.

Following Hart’s death, the WWF had only 20 hours before its weekly live

’Raw Is War’ broadcast on the USA Network. In an unprecedented move for

the company, story lines were temporarily halted and wrestlers dropped

their on-screen personas to talk about Hart as a human being. ’They came

back with a remarkable show,’ concedes Dan Klores Associates partner

Peter Seligman, who handles PR for rival World Championship


Media empire in tights

While professional wrestling is all about showmanship, it has also

become a serious business. An estimated 20 million viewers watch the

WWF’s nine hours of televised programming each week, while its Web site

welcomes three million unique visitors per month. Books by two of its

A-list personalities, Mick ’Mankind’ Foley and Dwayne ’The Rock’

Johnson, have topped The New York Times bestseller chart. When The Rock

hosted the March 18 Saturday Night Live, 20 million viewers tuned in for

at least part of the broadcast, giving the show its best ratings of the

season. Throw in licensed merchandise, home videos and about 200 live

events per year, and you’ve got one of the hottest across-the-board

entertainment properties in recent memory.

Indeed, with revenues of dollars 251.5 million in its most recent fiscal

year, the WWF more closely resembles a mainstream giant like Disney than

it does a niche wrestling outfit - a notion that Byrne and the company’s

eight-strong internal PR staff embraces. ’We’re storytellers,’ he


The WWF realizes, even if other wrestling promotions do not, that it is

battling with entertainment companies for consumers’ dollars. ’We have

to look at video games, movies, stuff happening on the Internet -

everything that competes for the attention of our audience,’ Byrne


For years, however, the WWF did little in the way of PR: ’They didn’t

know there was such a thing as PR until the mid-’80s,’ says Meltzer, who

publishes the Wrestling Observer newsletter and hosts a five-days-a-week

Yahoo! Internet radio show. ’They didn’t want publicity. It would lead

to the ’F’ word: fake.’ Back then, of course, the company didn’t openly

admit that the matches were as pre-scripted as President Reagan’s


’Not a sport’

While the WWF registered momentary blips on the mainstream radar - such

as a 1985 Sports Illustrated cover story on ’Mat Mania!’ - the ’sport’

was largely confined to wrestling-only rags.

Since Byrne arrived at the Stamford, CT-based company in September 1998,

the WWF has mainstreamed its PR activities. The company’s performers are

now more likely to pop up in Marie Claire, as they did in a February

2000 photo spread, than in Sports Illustrated.

’If Sports Illustrated were to call, we’d pass on the opportunity,’

Byrne says. ’We’re not a sport.’

Still, some paranoia from past dealings with far-less-sympathetic media

lingers: Byrne records most conversations with reporters. And critics of

the company’s PR efforts say that the WWF’s confrontational image poses

a real PR dilemma: after all, how can a publicly traded company minister

to sensitive corporate business when its fans expect an ’up yours’

attitude at all times?

’The company appears to disregard other influential audiences, such as

advertisers, concerned parents and legislators,’ says StrategyOne

president Steve Lombardo. ’They’ve been very fortunate, since criticism

from these groups has actually served to enhance its reputation with

young males.’ Adds Meltzer, ’Last year when Coke stopped advertising on

their shows, their response was to write negative letters and call Coke

names. It’s a weird situation that they’ve marketed themselves into, but

that’s the attitude that has led to their popularity.’

Others question the joint on- and off-camera roles filled by prexy Vince

McMahon. ’By involving him in such a negative way in the story lines, it

may be difficult to forget that role when he describes future business

ventures or is involved as a spokesperson in a crisis,’ says the

Widmeyer-Baker Group’s Patrick Riccards.

Byrne quickly dismisses such talk: ’We know that we have our


When controversy erupts, we run towards it, not away from it.’ He is,

however, acutely aware that wrestling is a cyclical business, and that

the current media goodwill towards the WWF could dry up as quickly as it


That said, Byrne’s PR goals for the immediate future are those of a

person clearly in the driver’s seat. ’Vince has given talks at Harvard

Law School and Oxford. We’d love to get him to Yale to complete the

triple crown.’ As for media relations, he says, ’We’ve achieved

virtually every magazine cover we’d want to go after,’ before adding,

’I’d love to see Time’s ’Man of the Year’ given to Vince.’

Expect a PR blitz of an entirely different sort when the WWF launches

its XFL football league next February, but don’t look for Byrne to turn

to outside PR agencies for assistance. ’As valuable as having an

independent set of eyes can be, speaking about this brand is best done

from within the company,’ he says. ’We define ourselves by what we say

’yes’ to and what we say ’no’ to.’


PR chief: Jim Byrne, SVP, marketing and public relations

Internal PR staff: eight

External agencies: The Hudson Stone Group (IR).

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